Murray State’s Ohio Valley Conference champions were that good, showing on March 18, 1988, that they could play with anyone.
The Racers upset No. 3-seeded N.C. State, five years removed from their improbable national championship. It was Murray State’s first NCAA Tournament victory and the sports moment judged the greatest in school history.
”It’s different if the underdog isn’t talented,” N.C. State head coach Jim Valvano after Murray State’s 78-75 victory. ”But they’re a nice basketball team. I don’t think Murray needs any defense of their record or performance.”
Besides, Murray State became the third consecutive 14 seed to win since the NCAA Tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The Racers followed Cleveland State (1986) and OVC rival Austin Peay (1987).
”This is what intercollegiate athletics are all about,” Racers head coach Steve Newton said. ”I told ’em to go out and play shirts and skins and see what we can do.”
Two 3-pointers by Don Mann triggered a 9-0 run late in the first half that gave the Racers a 35-32 advantage, and they never relinquished the lead. They led by 5 at halftime and stretched the lead to 11 in the second half before holding off the Wolfpack.
Jeff Martin, a two-time OVC Player of the Year, led the Racers with 23 points. Mann finished with 16, including the clinching free throws with 19 seconds remaining. Chris Ogden had 12 points and 11 rebounds.
The Wolfpack had a chance to send the game into overtime after Murray State’s Paul King missed a freethrow with seven seconds remaining, but Vinny Del Negro missed a 3-pointer from the top of the free-throw circle on the left side.
“We came from nowhere in our league,” Newton said. “We were the underdogs. We’ve been that way all year. These guys just never believed it.”
Two days later, the Racers nearly made believers of Danny Manning and Kansas. The sixth-seeded Jayhawks escaped with a 61-58 win in the round of 32, their closest margin of victory in their run to the national championship.
Martin’s free throws with 51 seconds remaining gave Murray State a 58-57 lead. But Manning scored on a jump hook to put Kansas ahead and hit two free throws in the final seconds after grabbing a rebound.
Martin went on to become the first basketball player in Murray State and OVC history to be invited to the Olympic trials for Team USA. In 2013, Murray State’s victory against N.C. State was No. 30 on the Lexington (Ky.) Herald Leader’s list of the top 75 NCAA Tournament moments in Kentucky state history.
“Certainly losing is never easy,” Valvano said, “but there’s also great happiness on Murray State’s side. I thought they played a fine basketball game.”
On the cover and above: Don Mann drives against Kansas late in Murray State’s second-round NCAA Tournament loss to eventual national champion Kansas on March 20, 1988, in Lincoln, Neb. Mann helped the Racers to an upset of No. 3-seeded N.C. State in the first round. (Courtesy Murray State Hall of Fame)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Middle Tennessee and Milwaukee
• Tuesday: Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State
• Wednesday: Missouri-Kansas City and Morehead State
• Thursday: Murray State and Navy
• Friday: Nebraska Omaha and New Hampshire